This is the moment that made Philadelphia 76ers fans sick.
It’s the moment the James Harden trade became worth the hassle. The moment potential crystallized into reality.
For the second game in a row, embattled star forward Ben Simmons one-upped himself.
After missing the entire 2021-22 NBA season, undergoing offseason back surgery, then dealing with a swollen left knee, Simmons is finally playing with a burst. He is sprinting, leaping, dunking and defending, not to mention playmaking, the five things the Nets have needed from him to tie together a championship caliber roster.
“[He was] incredible,” Kevin Durant said of Simmons after the Nets’ 109-107 win Thursday night over the Portland Trail Blazers. “Just happy for him because he’s been trying to get his form back, trying to figure his rhythm out, and tonight I think he did a good job of just talking up, commanding the offense, commanding the team on the defensive side of the ball.
“He was incredible tonight and we want to keep building on that, and hopefully we get this next one [against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday], but he controlled the game and was able to get us back into it.”
For the second game in a row, Simmons, who wouldn’t even look at the rim, let alone attempt to score earlier in the season, has scored in double figures.
After scoring 11 points in the Nets’ 32-point loss to the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, Simmons played his best game as a Net in Thursday’s victory over the Blazers: He played a season-high 32 minutes. He scored 15 points. He made all six of his shot attempts. He grabbed 13 rebounds, dished seven assists and only turned the ball over once. He even made three of his four free throw attempts. After starting the season in a limited capacity, oftentimes sitting on the bench behind Nic Claxton to close games, Simmons played the star role, alongside Kevin Durant, playing critical late-game minutes to help deliver a win.
For the first time all season, Simmons’ impact on the court matched the reputation that has long preceded him. For the first time all season, he looked and played like the second-best player on the floor, even outplaying Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, who shot 8-of-24 from the field for his 25 points. The Nets outscored the Trail Blazers by 13 in Simmons’ 32 minutes on the floor, the game’s second-highest plus-minus behind Durant (plus-15).
On one possession, Simmons grabbed a defensive rebound, rifled the ball upcourt to Royce O’Neale, then darted up the floor, got the ball back in stride and euro-stepped around Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic to finish at the rim with his right hand. Shortly after, Jacque Vaughn drew up an out-of-bounds play that led to Simmons flushing an inbounds alley-oop with two hands off a pass from under the rim. And then Simmons caught his second alley-oop, this time on a dime from Durant, who beat his man off the dribble forcing the help to come from Simmons before throwing a lob over the help for Simmons to finish with two hands.
That’s only the scoring. Simmons used his combination of court vision and athleticism to create open looks for his teammates all night. Off defensive rebounds, he’s a threat to pull a Kevin Love — like the full-court outlet pass he threw to Durant, who euro-stepped around a defender to dunk in transition. Simmons uses his speed to put pressure on the rim, then redirects his attention to an open shooter, like how he found O’Neale for a transition three in the second quarter. He’s still a threat in the dribble handoff, giving up the ball then using his size and strength to screen a defender, giving Durant a bit of daylight to get to the rack. And then, of course, there’s just the natural talent: the no-look dime in transition to Yuta Watanabe who hit a three in the fourth quarter that gave the Nets a 97-95 lead they never gave back.
“It’s very encouraging,” Vaughn said postgame. “The most minutes he’s played. Really responded well. Had a few combinations with Nic, without Nic, pushing the basketball, [playing] as a screener, so kind of what we envisioned: him doing everything for us. The defensive versatility of guarding Nurkic and guarding Damian Lillard. A lot people can’t do that, and if we can continue to grow with him and understand him, his game, how he benefits, with who, it’s very encouraging.”
This is the moment Sixers fans never wanted the Nets to have — and it’s a moment some weren’t sure would come.
Simmons had a slow start to the season. So slow, Harlem-born rapper Cam’Ron cursed him out on Instagram live for airballing a layup against the Dallas Mavericks. So slow, his teammate Kyrie Irving went viral for yelling “Shoot it, Ben!” after diming Simmons, who then declined to shoot. So slow there are reports as recent as Nov. 16 suggesting the Nets — players, coaches and executives — were frustrated with Simmons’ play style and his availability patterns.
“People make it seem like I had a sprained ankle or something,” Simmons said after the game. “I had back surgery. That’s not easy to come back from. So I take it day by day. I stay locked in. I stay focused and continue to build myself, my body and my game.”
This is the moment that makes it all worth it. It’s the moment Simmons officially takes shape as the piece that connects this roster together. And with Irving set to return from his suspension for Sunday’s game against the, it’s the moment for the Nets to build on.
It’s the moment Simmons officially arrived.